(Linda Nochlin taking art history class. Source: net)
Recently while listening to an interview by poet Balachandran Chullikkadu, I got the answer that I have been searching for a long time. May be, I thought that I got the answer to that pressing question. Perhaps, when I talk about it, you could disagree with it completely and tell me where and how I have gone wrong. First, the question that has been in me for a long time: Where do the post graduates of Art History/Criticism/Curatorial Practice/Aesthetic studies go after once they leave the colleges? A supplementary question to this has been: Why, despite a good number of students coming out of these colleges, do they not show exceptional talent in their respective fields of art history/criticism/curatorial practice/aesthetics?
While talking about how most of the people think that writing poetry does not need any special talent or practice, Balachandran Chullikkadu explains that in our society a majority thinks that to study engineering and medicine (scientific subjects in general) one needs ‘intelligence’ and the humanities could be handled by anybody. He further observes in his matter of fact style that many stray into the field of language studies only because either they consider themselves as lacking in intelligence or by considering the languages as rather easy subjects to gain a degree. Apart from a small number of students these days who deliberately opt for language and literature studies, most of the students come to this field only because they are denied admission in other subjects. Language and literature studies have become the refuge of the left over students. These students are expected to take the language and literature forward, which according to him is next to impossible and even when it is possible it would not of the right kind.
(poet Balachandran Chullikkaadu)
This observation of Chullikkadu in fact set me into thinking further about the art history/criticism/curatorial/aesthetic studies in India. Except a few students who are really allured by the charm of the subject (if at all it has any charm), most of them take up art history related subjects for degree and post graduation studies only because they are denied admission in other departments. When I went to study art history in Baroda in early 1990s, I had set my goal and I did not go there for joining in any other subjects. But while talking to my fellow students (including the ones who had finished their four years degree course in art history) I found that most of them had come to join the painting, sculpture or print making departments. When they did not get admission in these departments and they wanted to be in the Baroda Fine Arts Faculty, and above all a starving Art History department was welcoming students to run its degree and post graduate courses, they joined Art History department, thinking that they would shift when they got admission in the desired subjects in the next year.
It is like marriage. You start loving your spouse slowly even if you are really not interested in him or her because there is no other way. Among such students some of them would really fall in love with the subject and become art historians, critics, curators and so on. It is not just the case of Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts. It is the case of most of the universities that run such courses including the illustrious JNU’s Art and Aesthetics Department. A majority of the students, during the beginning of this department, came from other disciplines as they did not get admission in other departments. Generally speaking, when it comes to other disciplines, a student has already got certain ideas about what he or she is going to study. Someone who has set his/her mind on economics or sociology or international studies pursue it with a certain amount of rigour. Imagine, the same aspirants straying into the field of art and aesthetics; instead of rigour, what engulfs them would be a certain kind of aesthetics. I have seen quite a number of such so called ‘art historians, critics and curators’ who in fact do not have any hold either on art or aesthetics. What they have in hand are the ropes that they have acquired from the department, certain jargon and certain ways of conducting themselves and so on. I am yet to see a genuine art historian or critic or curator or aesthetician from any of these colleges. What I see so far is trendy young ‘critics/curators’ and a huge amount of fatigue.
(an art history class- source:net)
Why does it happen? It happens because most of them are ‘left over’ students, who think that art history and aesthetics are the areas that one needs less intellectual capacity. You need a nose to stick up into the air and a lot of English and attitude. Many think that it would make them trendy art critics and curators. By this time, you might have noticed me avoiding the word art history. I do that because art history is a life-long affair but criticism and curatorial practice could be itinerant. So we have so many itinerant and ad hoc critics and curators. Those people who are really interested in art history become researchers or teachers. Out of those who become teachers, many are simply good for nothing else other than teaching; one of the safest bets an academic could ever have in life. I am not implicating any one here rather I am being hugely sympathetic to one and all in this field why because the art historians, critics and curators in India do not have too many avenues to exercise their rights or knowledge or expertise. When the situation is like that what you could depend on is salary and good luck to all those who get a salary from their art history education.
To approach the subject differently, I would probe into the fact why predominantly only the left over students come to art history? Mainstream students do not prefer to come to these streams of education mainly because it is not at all lucrative. If you have a normal degree or post graduation, you can write a public service commission examination and become a bank clerk or a bus conductor. I have never seen an art history graduate going for it exactly the way an MBBS graduate would not go for bank test even in the direst of situations. It happens because art history and related fields of knowledge are professional in nature and the irony is that a professional course that produces professionals with virtually no job opportunities. Hardly the art scene employs the art history graduates as executives. And even if they do, they grow into dry administrators or backroom executives, but never professionally efficient art historians and art critics. Left over students come here because the field itself is not lucrative. And the fresh post graduates scramble through the UGC examinations because that is the only avenue where they would earn a decent job by becoming an art history professor.
(art history class . Source Net)
In India’s modern history, there was only one period when students really went to colleges with an intention to study art history. That was between 2005-2011. Those were the years when the Indian art market was booming and apparently the art establishments wanted more and more art history graduates to assist them in making catalogues and putting up shows. The field looked so lucrative and fashionable that there was an onrush of students to become art history post graduates. But then everything died out. Today, I see many intelligent art history post graduates moving aimlessly in the art scene, becoming so ad hoc that they are ready to do anything. Some potential writers have become backroom executives in galleries. Some have got jobs in national and international art establishments. And all of them have become ‘workers’ for those establishments. A country’s art historical scene would become important only when art history post graduates and doctorates engage with the current scenario or the scenarios in which they have pitched their expertise. There is a huge lack of daring and demanding among the art history post graduates and doctorates. Why I am not saying they are art historians and academics because all the English literature post graduates are not poets or playwrights. Similarly all the art history post graduates are not art historians, though many of them claim to be one. When the real art history post graduates and doctorates do not claim their space in the scene/field, so many quakes and half baked ones will rule it. We can only stand and complain. So wake up and work. As Chullikkadu says, art history and related fields are not the places where you need only less IQ to survive.
(pictures for representational purpose only. All pictures sourced from the net)